Legislative Process: Overview
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Article III of the state constitution assigns legislative power—essentially, the responsibility to make the law of the state—to the Georgia General Assembly. Under the government's system of separation of powers, legislative power cannot be delegated to any other branch of government, and although the people are ultimately sovereign in Georgia, the state's legislative power cannot be delegated to the public. This is because Georgia's constitution makes no provision for popular initiative and allows only the General Assembly to propose legislation. Further, in the absence of a constitutional provision allowing a public referendum, bills passed by the legislature cannot be conditioned upon subsequent voter approval or ratification in a statewide election.
Although the General Assembly has many responsibilities and roles, its primary function is to make the laws that govern Georgia. This involves the proposal of legislation, committee consideration, and finally action by the full house—a series of steps that have to be repeated in both houses.
The legislative process in Georgia has three components: first, it is a legal process governed by constitutional and statutory provisions (such as the requirement that appropriations and tax measures must originate in the House) as interpreted by state and federal court decisions. It is also a parliamentary process governed by a host of special rules of procedure that specify how legislation will be considered in each house. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is a political process whereby both legislators and nonlegislators (particularly the governor) compete for power and advantage in an environment where compromise is often more valuable than partisanship or ideology.
All legislation introduced in the General Assembly is classified as either a "bill" or a "resolution." Bills are used to propose changes or additions to existing statutory law, while resolutions usually express legislative opinion or recognition on some matter and do not have the effect of law. A bill becomes known as an "act" or "law" when it is passed by both houses in identical form and signed by the governor.
In Georgia bills are either general or local in application. A general bill has statewide application, while a local bill applies only to a named city or county. Regardless of type, the great majority of bills involve proposals to change existing law. General bills are drafted to specifically amend the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (or O.C.G.A., which is a complete compilation of all legislative acts currently in force in Georgia, arranged by subject matter, and organized into numbered titles, chapters, and sections). Legislative acts comprising the O.C.G.A. are also termed "statutes"—a term referring to the body of written law enacted by the legislature.
The Georgia General Assembly convenes on the second Monday of each January for a forty-day session. Because legislators can stop the count of days by formally adjourning for recesses, the actual session usually involves at least sixty calendar days and ends sometime in March. Should an emergency arise after final adjournment, the General Assembly can be called into special session.
Although in formal session for only two months, members of the General Assembly are involved in legislative business for much of the year. Like the work of the U.S. Congress and other state legislatures, much of the work of the Georgia General Assembly takes place in committee. Each house has a number of standing committees (so called because these are more or less permanent bodies continuing from session to session). All bills introduced at a session must be assigned to a standing committee and receive a favorable report before being considered on the floor by the full membership. Standing committees commonly hold hearings during the interim between sessions. Also commonly active in the interim are various study committees that have been previously authorized by one or both houses.
Bills and resolutions can be "prefiled" by committees before the session convenes, although formal action on a bill can only take place during a legislative session. Whether a measure is prefiled or introduced during a session, it is given a number along with a prefix—H.B. or H.R. (for house bill or resolution) or S.B. or S.R. (for senate bill or resolution). Only legislators can introduce bills, and a bill can have any number of cosponsors from a particular house. Not even the governor can directly introduce legislation, though the governor does appoint floor leaders who can introduce legislation and represent his or her interests in each house.
While only a legislator can introduce a bill, most legislators rely on attorneys in the Office of Legislative Counsel to draft the actual text of the bill. This office does not attempt to argue the wisdom of what a legislator wants to do but rather is primarily concerned with how to draft the bill in correct and precise legal format.
Once drafted, a bill faces three stages in the legislative process. The first is the process of introduction. A copy of the proposed bill is submitted by the author or sponsor to the Clerk of the House or Secretary of the Senate, depending on the member's house. There the bill is given a number, entered into the house's database, and printed in multiple copies. The next morning, the bill is considered to have been formally introduced into its house.
Each bill or resolution has a "title," which is an introductory paragraph summarizing its content. As a caution against hastily passed legislation, Georgia's constitution requires that the title of each general bill be read three times on three separate days in each house. On the day of introduction the title of the bill is read aloud on the floor of the chamber. At this point, the presiding officer announces to which standing committee the bill will be assigned.
The bill now faces the second stage of the legislative process—committee consideration. While studying a bill, a committee can invite the author, other legislators, lobbyists, state agency officials, or the general public to testify about the bill. Frequently, based on its study, the committee will make changes in the measure. Should members desire to send the bill to the floor, they adopt a favorable report that simply states "do pass," "do pass with amendments," or "do pass by substitute" (meaning an alternate bill is forwarded). If the committee wishes to keep the bill from advancing, it can issue an unfavorable "do not pass" recommendation, or, as is most common, the committee can simply hold the bill and issue no report. Though there are several procedural motions to force the bill out or to move it to another committee, most bills introduced in the Georgia General Assembly die in committee.
If favorably reported from committee, a bill advances to the third stage—floor consideration. For most of the session, each house operates under its own rules calendar. Prepared each evening by the rules committee, this calendar sets the next day's agenda for floor action. As there are usually more bills favorably reported from committee than can be considered on one day's floor session, the rules committee attempts to decide which bills are most important or deserving of floor consideration. For a variety of reasons, a particular bill reported from standing committee may never be placed on the rules calendar.
Bills placed on the rules calendar are called up one by one for floor action. First, the bill's title is read aloud a third and final time. Then the floor is opened for debate. In each house, floor debate involves a member being recognized by the presiding officer to come forward to the "well" (the central podium at the front of the chamber) and speak on the bill to the entire body. During these comments, members at their desks may be recognized by the presiding officer to ask questions—and they must be phrased as questions. Legislators in the well usually agree to respond, although they occasionally decline to yield for questions.
At this point, amendments to a bill may be offered from the floor. Finally, if a motion calling for the previous question is approved, then debate ends and the presiding officer calls for a vote. Each member has a switch at his or her desk to cast a "yea" or "nay" vote via an electronic voting system. Approval of a bill requires a majority of the total membership of that house—the equivalent of ninety-one yes votes in the house or twenty-nine in the senate.
If approved, a bill is sent to the other house, where it must start again in committee to undergo the same procedure. In order for the bill to pass, an identical bill must be approved by each house of the General Assembly. Usually one house will make changes to a bill sent from the other house. In that event, the amended bill is sent back to the first house, which has the option of accepting or refusing the amendments. If the amendments are rejected, then the bill is sent back to the second house, which can delete its amendments or stand firm. If the two houses cannot agree, then a conference committee consisting of three members of each house can be appointed to try to achieve a compromise acceptable to both houses. If a compromise is agreed to, then the conference committee's report is presented to each house for approval. In recent decades, the conference committee mechanism has become increasingly important for resolving differences between the two houses. Today most important legislation (especially the annual appropriations act) can expect to end up in conference committee prior to passage.
Once the three stages of the legislative process have concluded, a new stage—consideration by the governor—begins. During a session, the governor can request that a particular bill be sent for signature or veto. But generally most bills are only sent to the governor following the end of the legislative session. The governor then has forty days to decide whether to sign the bill into law, veto the bill (in which event it is returned to the house where it was introduced for veto override consideration), or do nothing (which allows the bill to become law automatically at the end of the forty-day period).